Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Week 9: Candied Bacon Lollipops

Recently, my brother shared with me this recipe for candied bacon lollipops, a gem he found in a recent issue of Wine Spectator, of all places. It was probably his passive-aggressive way of telling me that next time I visit, I need to bring a slab of our homemade bacon so that we can test this recipe. But I am not planning a visit any time soon, and I just cannot wait. I mean, really, who can resist a recipe like this? It cannot languish in my recipe pile, hidden away and forgotten. No, it must be tried….now.

Admittedly, I am making this in the morning, when in fact it is designed as a cocktail bite. But bacon of any kind is good in the morning, and I can tell you that not one person in my house is complaining about the hour these are being served. If I am lucky, we might have a few left to have tonight with a cold beer or maybe a glass of wine. (Given that this appeared in a wine magazine, I wonder what I should pair with these lollipops. Any suggestions?)

I was hesitant to use 2 1/2 pounds of bacon for only 20-25 lollipops. Not only did that seem like a lot of bacon, I thought that a 1” x 1” square might be on the large side. So I chose to make the pieces a bit smaller, which yielded a larger quantity. Some shrinkage does occur, so use your judgment on the size. (You can also halve this recipe if you are not serving a crowd – rule of thumb is half as much sugar as bacon. So if you are using 1 pound bacon, use 1/2 cup sugar.)

In addition to adjusting the size, I made a few other small adjustments to the recipe: (1) When tossing bacon pieces with the sugar, you will notice that not a lot sticks. I found that by putting a bit of the excess sugar in my palm and squeezing it around the bacon piece a few times, I could get more to adhere, meaning less was scattered willy nilly around the pan. (2) Placing bacon pieces closer together and toward center of pan helps reduce the amount of burning sugar, some of which is inevitable around the edge of the pan.  (3) After the pan has been out of the oven for one minute, remove bacon pieces from silicone mat with tongs and turn bottom side up on wax paper. If you leave the bacon pieces on the mat for the full 5 minutes to cool, the sugar starts to set up and adhere to the bacon in strange shapes, making for an unpleasant-looking appetizer.  

Note: I think you could cut the bacon pieces, coat it and stick the pan in the fridge until you are ready to cook them, making it a very easy party food.

Now to the taste test. As expected, these were a big hit with everyone who tried them. I also found them extremely addictive. I literally had to box up half the pieces and put them in the refrigerator for fear I might eat them all. The lollipops are sweet and salty, soft and crunchy all at the same time. Using a good quality, smoky bacon will yield the best result. You want some good fat in there so the softness contrasts with the chewy bacon and crispy sugar coat.

Considering how little time these took, the ease of cooking, and the resulting taste, this recipe is a winner. (Thank you Michael. I promise to make some for you next time we are together.) 

UPDATE 2/27/14: Said brother has recommended a "crisp Sauvignon Blanc" to pair with this awesome appetizer.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Week 8: Whole Grain Breakfast Bars

How many of you skip breakfast most mornings? Or go for the quick bowl of cereal or piece of toast? Mornings are a rushed time, trying to prepare for work or children for school, and unless you subscribe to the 1950’s model of meal preparation and serve a piping hot breakfast, you don’t have the time to make, let alone eat, a substantial meal. (And my guess is that if you have children, they don’t have the time either.)

When my children were school-aged, I often cooked food on Sunday for the week. Sometimes this would include a coffeecake, muffins, or scones that could be eaten on the fly but be substantial enough (with whole grains, fruit, and/or nuts) to satisfy everyone until lunchtime came around. Over the last year I have taken to making granola bars, of which you can whip up in 20 minutes and makes 20 full-sized bars. I like these because the varieties are endless. By using different kinds of nuts and dried fruit—or even mini chocolate chips—you can tailor the recipe to your liking. (My most recent version was tropical in flavor, with coconut, dried pineapple/apricot/mango with pecans and almonds.) But a new recipe is threatening to dethrone my granola bars.

Whole Grain Breakfast Bars are similar in nature to NutriGrain Bars, take only 15 minutes to prepare and make 9 squares that are similar in calories, low in fat and sodium, with 4 grams of protein and fiber. The original recipe called for raspberries, but I have found that blueberries and blackberries work just as well. I can make these over the weekend, cut them into squares and wrap each in wax paper or plastic wrap, ready to be grabbed on the go. So with a little bit of planning and minimum effort, you can have a healthy, tasty, lower cost breakfast bar to enjoy all week long.

Whole Grain Breakfast Bars
6 ounces blueberries, raspberries or blackberries (or combination)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 1/2 cups oats (regular or quick)
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces
1/4 cup wheat germ
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 9-inch square pan.

Combine berries, granulated sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until boiling. Lower heat and simmer, stirring constantly, for several minutes until sauce is thick and translucent. Remove from heat to cool.

Prepare base by combining oats, flour, sugar, nuts, wheat germ and cinnamon in a food processor until oats and nuts are ground. Combine the oil and egg and add to this mixture using the pulse feature, until thoroughly combined. Scrape the bowl once or twice to ensure all ingredients become moist.

Press half of the base mixture into the prepared pan, tamping down with your fingers or the bottom of a glass. Spread the berry filling evenly over the base. Top with the remaining base mixture, pressing down firmly. (Don’t get overzealous here, you do not want the filling to ooze up over the topping.)

Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool and cut into 9 squares.

Yield: 9

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Week 7: Cardamom Crumb Coffeecake

On the weekends I like to prepare something special for breakfast. Sometimes it is home-cured bacon and scrambled eggs, maybe a breakfast bread pudding, a simple Dutch baby, or fresh blueberry muffins. During holidays and family brunches I often make a pecan-buttermilk coffeecake that feeds a crowd. But it is one of the few coffeecakes I have ever made, mostly because it is a beloved recipe and it is so easy. But when I ran across this cardamom crumb coffeecake recipe in the May/June Eating Well magazine, I was instantly drawn to it.

I love cardamom. I love chai. I even make a chai bread pudding and chai cinnamon rolls. (Baking these perfumes my whole kitchen for hours. It is heaven!) Cardamom is not a common household spice, nor is it native to the U.S. You can buy cardamom either in the pod or ground. I tend to keep the pods on hand and use them lightly crushed in chai or I grind them when needed for recipes. It is also cheaper this way. A spicy aromatic, cardamom can be pretty pricey in your grocery store. Spice Islands and McCormick charge about $12 for a 2-ounce jar, which will last forever. Of course, having it last forever is not a good thing. Once ground, cardamom begins to lose its oomph. So, I recommend you purchase the pods (Cost Plus is a cheaper resource for these) and grind them in your coffee or spice grinder when needed. You will get the most flavor and bang for your buck. And, if you are anything like me, you will find other uses for those little green pods.

This tasty coffeecake requires only about 10 minutes (or less) of your time to prepare and 35-40 minutes to bake. No special equipment is necessary. Items that you may not have on hand are the aforementioned cardamom, whole wheat flour and buttermilk, but everything else is usually found in your pantry or fridge.

The coffeecake has a nice crumb and the spiciness of the cardamom is toned down so it is very subtle.
In fact, I adjusted the amount of cardamom in the crumb and added cinnamon to the cake to up the flavor quotient a bit.

So come Saturday, think about trying this out. You (and your family) will be happy you did. 

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Week 6: Glazed Almond-Cranberry Snack Clusters

This is a guest post by Brilliant Daughter.

Everybody loves a good snack. Some people prefer salty chips or pretzels or maybe something sweet like M&Ms or a chocolate chip cookie. I, personally, love nutty snacks. My go-to brand is Sahale, which makes a series of nut-based snacks that rotate throughout the year. I’ve tried several of them, but I always go back to the first flavor I found at Costco—Almonds with Cranberries, Honey, and Sea Salt. I won’t tell you how many bags of this stuff I’ve gone through—and the lengths I’ve gone to find it when it is out of rotation.

For Christmas, my roommate got me the Sriracha Cookbook. Having lived with me for 6 months, she noticed my addiction to this spicy sauce. The first recipe I made was for kicked-up party nuts (which I’m sure we’ll blog about sometime in the future as they are equally addicting as the sauce itself). It got me to thinking that I could use the basic premise of the recipe to recreate my favorite Sahale snack.

The process took about 5 minutes plus the baking time, and in the end I was rewarded with a close approximation that will keep me stocked up and satisfied during the off-season. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can change it up based on what you have in the pantry or your own flavor preferences. You can use different kinds of nuts, different dried fruits, a higher ration of fruit to nut, or even add in spices (cinnamon, cardamom) or spiciness (like aforementioned Sriracha or red chile flakes). The combinations are endless.

To toast sesame seeds: Heat a skillet over medium heat and add the seeds. Shake every 20 seconds or so until they are a golden brown. Remove from heat.

Make your own vanilla sea salt: Slice a vanilla bean lengthwise and combine with 1/3 cup coarse 
sea salt. Store in an airtight container, shaking daily for one week.

Honeyed Almonds and Cranberries with Vanilla Sea Salt
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
1 teaspoon coarse vanilla sea salt
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
8 oz blanched slivered almonds
4 oz dried cranberries, roughly chopped
1 egg white
1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoon orange blossom honey

Heat the oven to 250 degrees and line a jellyroll pan with Silpat, parchment or wax paper.

Combine the sesame seeds, sea salt, and brown sugar in a small bowl. In a medium bowl, toss the almonds and cranberries. In another small bowl, whip the egg, water, and honey with a fork until frothy and amalgamated.

Pour the liquid mixture over the nuts/cranberries and stir with a spatula to coat. Add in the dry ingredients, and stir until there are no more dry pockets.

Spread mixture evenly onto prepared pan (it’s OK if it’s not quite a single layer—that’ll create heartier pieces) and bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes.

Allow to cool and then break into bite-sized pieces. Store in an airtight container.